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To Be a Musician
Serious musicians who choose Yale over conservatories may profit from a broad-gauge education, but they risk sacrificing their art. At least one undergraduate is making it all work.

The story in Inbal Megiddo’s family goes like this: When Inbal, who has just finished her junior year at Yale, was two years old, she was taken to a musical instruments store by her violinist mother. Her eyes fastened immediately on a cello, and pointing, she said, “I want that.” She was insistent, and at last her parents bought the toddler a size-16 cello, no bigger than a viola. “I don’t remember that,” Meggido says now. “All I know is that I’ve always played the cello.”

Inbal’s musical precocity kept pace as she grew older. At 15, she played for Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the world’s premier cellists. When she finished, Rostropovich called Inbal’s mother to urge her to leave Singapore, where the family was stationed with Inbal’s diplomat father. “There’s nothing here for her,” he said. “She needs to study in the United States.”

Three years later, the German-born Meggido, daughter of two Israelis, arrived in America. She had considered attending a conservatory, but decided that an exclusive focus on music was too confining; she rejected, too, the other Ivy League schools that wooed her. “I wanted to study with Aldo Parisot,” she says simply. “Other universities offered to send me to his classes, but that seemed silly when here he was right across the street.”

Right across the street, in other words, is the Yale School of Music, where Aldo Parisot has taught cello for almost 40 years. Now 76, the renowned musician and professor still gives private lessons, although he has taken on only two undergraduates in recent years. One of those is Meggido. “I cannot predict the future,” says Parisot, “but she could be something quite special.” Along with exceptional talent, he says, Meggido has something just as important. “She knows what she wants to do with her life: She wants to be a soloist,” he explains. “When I ask graduating students—What are you going to be?—a lot of them don’t have the foggiest idea. But one must know. One must have a goal in life, and then try as hard as possible to achieve it.”

For a dedicated musician who is also a full-time Yale undergraduate, that is hard indeed. The practice sessions that lasted for 20 minutes when Meggido was a child have stretched to five hours a day, seven days a week. That’s in addition to weekly lessons, master classes, and rehearsals with the Yale Cellists, a performance group-not to mention the rigors of the regular Yale College curriculum. “It’s not easy to do everything,” Meggido acknowledges. But the serious study of music yields rich rewards, she says, even as it demands a daunting commitment of time and energy.

About 140 undergraduates took lessons at the School of Music this year; about 50 of those were accomplished enough to receive academic credit for their studies. While most undergraduates are taught by music graduate students, a talented few take instruction from the School’s faculty, which is one of the world’s most illustrious. Typically, students meet with their teachers for a one-hour lesson each week, plus a two-hour “master class,” or public tutorial with other students.

Such close attention leaves little room for slacking off. “He knows what I can do, what I want to do,” says Meggido of Parisot. “I wanted to study with him because he had what I needed. He’s very demanding, but when you’re done with him, you can do whatever you want to do on your own.” Parisot concedes, “I am demanding in every way possible. What I want from my students is discipline and dedication, which are very important when you are young.” Behind Parisot’s hard line is his desire to prepare his pupils for the life of the professional musician, a life which, even when successful, is never easy. “You must be like a prizefighter, with a stomach like a rock,” says Parisot. “You have to face an audience every night, and you cannot cheat them.”

Inbal says that she is aware of the difficulties of being a professional musician, and that she accepts them. Other students have made a different choice. Last year, Jason Weinstein graduated from Yale College, and this spring he will receive a master’s degree in clarinet from the School of Music. In September, however, he will enter a master’s program in conducting, and he says that he now plans to make conducting his career. “I’d like to play the clarinet professionally, but it can be really tough,” he says. “In most cases, you’re looking at a low-paying orchestra job.”

Weinstein has also encountered the health problems common to many musicians. “After dealing with some tendonitis last year, I had to stop and take stock, see what I was capable of physically,” he says. “Now I’m really glad that I focused most of my studies outside of music. It gave me more options musically and in terms of my career.” Weinstein, who majored in the humanities, says that his academic studies “pushed me to acquire solid research skills, which really helped me with conducting,” an activity that he calls “an interesting combination of scholarship and music.”

For those like Weinstein who are passionate about both, the combination of the College and the School of Music may seem ideal. Yet musicians who choose Yale over a conservatory are in some ways at a disadvantage. Like much of the rest of the University’s buildings, the Music School’s facilities have suffered the effects of deferred maintenance. Undergraduates say that there are few adequate places to practice, and pianists in particular complain that many of the instruments available to them are poorly maintained. And because Music School professors devote most of their time to graduate students, there are often not enough teachers to give lessons to undergraduates-even those at the most advanced levels.

Meggido says that she once had her doubts. “That’s another way in which Parisot has really helped me,” she says. “When I first came here I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision, but he told me that to be a musician I had to know about more than music.” Adds Parisot: “Undergraduates cannot give all their time to their playing. I tell them to find a balance.” And remarkably, most of them do. Meggido herself majors in political science, plays intramural softball and field hockey, and is training with a friend for the New York Marathon. “I love to play the cello, but I couldn’t do music 24 hours a day. That’s why I came to Yale,” she says. “Yale gives me the chance to use everything—my brain, my fingers, my heart.”

But not everyone manages to accommodate so comfortably the demands of serious music study with the hectic pace of Yale College. On the door to his office, Tom Duffy, director of undergraduate studies in music, has posted an excerpt from a biography of cellist Marin Alsop, who attended Yale College in the early 1970s. “It was a very confusing time in my life,” reads the Alsop quotation. “I had already determined to be a musician, but Yale scattered my attention in other directions. Because I couldn’t practice and get straight A’s and be perfect at everything I did, I wasn’t very pleased with myself. So I left Yale and I came to New York.”

The reminder is there, says Duffy, to let the students who come to him for help know that they are not the first to feel overwhelmed. “Students, a lot of them, come to me and say ‘I can’t make the commitment to music that I want to make because Yale is the way it is,’” says Duffy, who is also the director of the Yale University Band. “The Yale system places music in direct competition with academic requirements: labs, classes, homework. And the academic schedule is so complex that it almost defies them to commit to music.”

Duffy tells the story of the band’s spring trip to Ireland, where they performed in Dublin. “After five days of being away from classes, they were focused, attentive, energetic, and they gave one of the best concerts I’ve ever been involved in,” says Duffy. “And they knew it, too. After the performance, they looked around at each other, and they didn’t have to say a word.” He sighs. “But as soon as we returned to Yale, it was back to usual-there were people missing, the students who were there were distracted, sick, exhausted.” Though Duffy says he is “frustrated” by his students' divided attentions, he adds that “in spite of everything, they come through. So I’m complaining with pride.”

What makes them “come through,” Duffy says, is not music’s exacting demands, but its emotional and spiritual rewards: “There’s a hedonistic pleasure in performing, a catharsis that’s a wonderful antidote to academic pursuits.” In music, he says, “work and play are sometimes the same thing.” Meggido, who has performed for Bosnian refugees, New Haven schoolchildren, and an audience of 20,000 at Yitzak Rabin’s memorial service, says that performance is a reliable source of satisfaction. “I can make music for anyone and with anyone, and every time I know it means something to the audience and a lot to me,” she says. She adds that she’s rarely troubled by stage fright: “I’ve always performed, and I’m very comfortable with it. As long as I’ve prepared, I’m going to enjoy playing.”

Ask other Yale College musicians why they play, and they’ll offer the same answer. “There are very few things I’ve experienced that can compare to performing in an orchestra, being a part of something that is more than the sum of its parts, something that moves other people,” says Jason Weinstein. Sophie Shao, an 18-year-old cellist and Yale freshman who is Parisot’s only other undergraduate student, says that “the more time I put into music, the more knowledge and understanding it gives me. We work with music written by some of the most sensitive people who have ever lived, and their messages still hold so much meaning and mystery, even after centuries of change.” The study of music, says Shao, “is really the study of human emotions combined with technique.”

Although the pursuit of perfect technique is an arduous one, it is ultimately a means rather than an end. “Technical skill is like a vocabulary: Without a vocabulary, you cannot express yourself,” says Parisot. “But technique must be at the service of music. I have heard musicians with tremendous technique and nothing to say.” Explains Meggido: “You’re trying to convey emotion in music. Playing an instrument is about your relationship with the rest of the world. You can’t just get up there and move your fingers really fast, because too many people can do that. You have to begin with perfect technique, but that’s not enough. It takes more.”

Her teacher offers a hint of what that something more might be when asked why he prefers the cello to other instruments. “I love the cello because its sound is closest to the human voice,” says Parisot. “But the real difference is not in the instrument. It’s in the person who plays it.”  the end


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